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Heirs of Suomi focus on mission

With Finnish language on the fade in North America, Suomi Synod heritage is getting a makeover

Time was when you could identify a Lutheran by his or her language —
Germans, Danes, Icelanders, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns shared Martin
Luther’s Small Catechism and solid Lutheran chorales. But they held off
switching to English language worship. (Otherwise, next thing you knew, your
kids would end up in a mixed marriage, and then how would you know
whose traditions to celebrate?)
The “language question” was settled a long time ago. But Lutheran “special
interest conferences” keep the ethnic heritages alive. In the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), there are currently four such groups —
preserving the traditions and ethnic memories of German, Danish, Hungarian,
and Finnish Lutherans. (There’s also a Slovak Synod, a non-geographic group
with its own bishop.)
The Finns made significant contributions to church life in the northern Great
Lakes area, specifically Michigan and Minnesota. Suomi (literally “Finland”)
College in Hancock, Michigan, was the epicenter for North American Finnish
Lutheranism. It has in recent years reinvented itself as Finlandia University.
Its seminary merged with Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago decades
In Minnesota, the Finnish Lutheran presence is perhaps most evident in the
Northeastern Minnesota Synod. The president of the ELCA’s Suomi (Finnish)
Special Interest Conference, the Rev. Antti Lepisto, is located in Duluth. He
told Metro Lutheran, “With so few bi-lingual Finnish/English congregations
left, the conference has redirected its efforts. We now focus on mission
projects — specifically in Namibia (Southwest Africa) and Russia.”
Members of the conference hold an annual meeting in mid-summer at
Finlandia University. The Finns in Minnesota celebrate their heritage with
worship events in both Duluth and the Twin Cities. The annual Finnish-
language hymn service is held each December at St. Michael Lutheran Church
in Roseville, Minnesota.
There are currently around 40 ELCA congregations with ties to the Suomi
Special Interest Conference. Most of them have historic ties to the former
Suomi Synod. Many of these parishes are located in or near the Northeastern
Minnesota Synod, which has developed its mission outreach in close
cooperation with the Finnish Conference.
The partnership with the Namibian Lutheran Church began over a century
ago, when a Finnish Lutheran missionary went there to begin work among the
indigenous population. That makes Suomi Conference’s support of that
church a natural. Projects include scholarship support for pastors-in-
training; missionary support for a volunteer missionary; a kindergarten
building in one of the African congregations; books for Namibian church
libraries; and seminars for pastors.
A more ambitious partnership thrives with the Church of Ingria, an historic
Finnish presence inside Russia that dates back to 1611. The Ingrian Church
got its start in an unlikely way. Sweden conquered Finland and swept all the
way into Russia, establishing a sphere of influence that resulted in a Lutheran
presence in the region between Estonia and St. Petersburg.
Until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Ingrian Church supported 32 large
congregations and a total of 150,000 baptized members. That changed with
the fall of the Czars. The Soviets systematically closed all the Lutheran
churches. The last one disappeared in 1938. Church members who didn’t go
underground, or lose their lives, ended up in Siberia.
In 1969 the Lutherans were allowed to make a new start. Today there are 80
registered Lutheran congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of
Ingria in Russia, with about 30,000 members. There are an additional number
of unregistered “chapel” congregations. Congregations now exist far beyond
St. Petersburg, some at the other end of Russia.
The Finnish Special Interest Congregation has built a solid relationship with
the Ingrians. Their assistance has resulted in the building of a theological
institute (with assistance from ELCA Global Mission); scholarship support for
church leaders; salary support for pastors; the purchase of automobiles for
ministry work; funding for the Finnish Bible Society; children’s summer
camps; and other projects.
With the re-emergence of Lutheranism in Russia, a new and unexpected
challenge has arisen. The Russian Orthodox Church is feeling its oats for the
first time since 1917. While the hierarchy is officially supportive of Lutheran
ministry (largely because the Ingria Church has historic roots in Russia), local
priests are not always so collegial.
Says Lepisto, “In one town when the Lutherans wanted to build a church
building, the local Orthodox, encouraged by their priest, collected so many
names on petitions, the construction was stopped. The reason? “It was going
up across the street from a local school, and might influence the tender
young minds of students.”
Another attempt was made to build across the street from a city bus station.
More petitions. The rationale? “People would be forced to confront a non-
Orthodox church presence during their daily commute.” At length, the
Metropolitan stepped in and told the local church leaders to back off, but
only after a lot of heartache and consternation in the Lutheran community.
A two-week visit to Ingrian Church sites in Central Russia is planned for May
11-24. For details, call 218/525-4787 or e-mail